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Start your head-engines

Thu, 08/31/2006 - 8:00pm
Leslie Ellis, Technology Analyst

If it hasn't been added to your to-do list this year, know that it will. OCAP, or the OpenCable Applications Platform, will begin inching its way into a dozen or so U.S. cable systems this year. Over the next two years, it will advance steadily into more headends, more leased set-tops, and more consumer electronics devices, like HDTVs.

'Start your head-engines'

Such was the promise made by several cable chief executives in January, when they pledged OCAP readiness at a press conference during the annual Consumer Electronics Show (see "Who's prepping," p. 30, for launch commitments).

What does it take to launch OCAP? Depends upon who you ask. The breezy answer: Not much. Upgrade the headend, then "just" download the client into the box. Cake!

Those getting ready for the launch describe it a little differently. "There's a significant amount of headend work that's needed to get ready for OCAP," said Don Watson, director of advanced engineering and digital video for Charter Communications, during an OCAP session at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers annual Cable-Tec Expo, held this year in Denver.

Complication requires organization. For that reason, Watson recommends an engineering-led program management team and set of processes (see "Tips," p. 26).

OCAP's many intersections

If you've sat in on many OCAP planning meetings, you've probably noticed how fast other technology initiatives enter the conversation. It happens quickly. You're talking about application program interfaces (APIs) for OCAP, you mentally skip out for a brief moment, and the next thing you know, someone across the table is on a deep dive into the July '07 integration ban for leased digital set-tops.

Or DSG (DOCSIS Set-top Gateway). Or DCAS (Downloadable Conditional Access Systems). Or "the monitor app," or this new signaling mechanism known as "XAIT," for extended application information table.

It turns out that most of those technology initiatives are new, and OCAP either depends on them, or they depend on OCAP, or they're related in some significant way.

Let's take them one by one

The "707" Deadline: Next year, on July 1, cable operators are no longer allowed to deploy leased set-tops that contain embedded security. Instead, based on an FCC rule, cable operators must deploy set-tops that include a CableCARD slot.

SA's multi-stream CableCARD
This is where things begin to entwine. Some two-way and "multi-stream" CableCARDs rely on a DSG signaling path to relay information across the network. Others support DSG and traditional out-of-band methods, like DAVIC.

Neither DSG nor DAVIC require an OCAP environment, but the potential need for a new out-of-band signal path lengthens the to-do list. Be sure to ask your CableCARD suppliers whether you need to fire up DSG, in order to support OCAP. Also, ask your set-top suppliers what leaseable boxes they're preparing that will link up with which multi-stream, two-way cards.

Downloadable security, especially the DCAS (Downloadable Conditional Access Systems) being developed via CableLabs, will eventually be a better and cheaper alternative to CableCARDs. That's the good news. The bad news is, it isn't likely to be ready by next July.

With DCAS, leased set-tops and other host devices receive their security personality after plugging in to the cable plant. All initial host devices from the consumer electronics (CE) community will include OCAP, and the overall design for DCAS expects an OCAP environment.

Cable's DCAS efforts are largely in the hands of a clandestine startup named PolyCipher, based in Denver, and funded by Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, and Cox Communications.

The Monitor App: The first OCAP application to fire up in any tests or deployments is known as "the monitor app." Its purpose is to manage shared and individual resources within an OCAP-based device. Example: If multiple applications on the network require tuner access, the monitor app decides who goes first.

In short, the monitor app goes in first, and stays constantly resident and alert.

Another role of the monitor app is to manage application lifecycles. Say you're watching "Last Comic Standing," for instance, and an icon pops up asking you to vote. The monitor app makes sure the icon disappears when you tune to a different channel.

To add one more intricacy into the mix, the monitor application requires XAIT signaling, to do its back-and-forth work with the network.

In summary: Some two-way CableCARDs signal using DSG, which often links into the same headend upgrade as OCAP. Downloadable security, when it becomes mainstream, needs an OCAP environment. A primary OCAP application, "the monitor app," requires XAIT signaling. It's a complex stew of to-dos.

So you use mostly Motorola headends?

Motorola executives suggest the following list of steps, to get ready for OCAP:

First, upgrade the headend controller, known as a Digital Addressable Controller, or DAC. Part of this upgrade involves a piece of equipment called the RADD, which stands for Remote Addressable DANIS/DLS. The "DANIS/DLS" stands for "Downloadable Addressable Network Interface System/Download Server." (By far, RADD is one of the most aggressive examples of a nested acronym we've yet seen.)

The RADD is necessary to activate linkage with the DSG signal path to the cable modem termination system (CMTS).

Next, add and activate a carousel mechanism, for sending out applications over a common download scheme. Motorola's carousel generates an MPEG-compliant transport stream containing OCAP applications. It also loads unbound applications.

On the device side, make sure you have a set-top or consumer electronics device that contains a compliant OCAP middleware stack. OCAP stacks for set-tops are available from third-party providers, such as Vidiom, Alticast, and others, or, ask your supplier for their recommendation. Most CE devices will come with their own stack.

On the CE side, four manufacturers will likely be first-to-market with digital TVs that contain a two-way CableCARD slot, and an OCAP stack: LG Electronics, Panasonic, Samsung, and Thomson. Those four companies signed a CableLabs license known as the Cable Host Interface Licensing Agreement, or CHILA. That means they're working closely with the industry to develop compliant products.

All "existing" digital video applications–the electronic program guide, the on-demand ordering system, etc.– must necessarily be recoded in the Java programming language, in order to run in an OCAP host environment. That work began several years ago; check with extant suppliers to make sure you're ready there.

Getting OCAP-ready in an SA environment

Scientific Atlanta's to-do-for-OCAP list also starts in the headend. Its controller, known as the DNCS, for Digital Network Control System, needs a bump to version 4.0 or higher for OCAP activities and a required object carousel, company officials say.

Next, add the object carousel–a replacement, essentially, for the company's "broadcast file system," or BFS. The carousel works by playing out Java-based applications (OCAP is Java-based) over the XAIT signal mechanism.

On the device side, SA is readying a version of its 8300 HD set-top to contain a CableCARD slot. Some fielded 8300s contain enough memory and processing power to support OCAP and existing applications, executives say.

That matters because whatever is running on the non-OCAP boxes in the field, needs to run just as well on OCAP-grade devices.

How 'real' is OCAP?

There's a well-known nugget of industry wisdom that says this: If an effort isn't tagged by an MSO as corporate priority one, two or three, it doesn't happen– even if it's lucrative (witness business services).

Has OCAP made it into the coveted top-three priority–or does it get tagged as "interesting"? (In the language of priorities, "interesting" is usually not a compliment.)

"We're pretty well committed that OCAP becomes the next project," said Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast, to a room filled with financial analysts this spring. "We had a vision of on-demand, and simulcast, and now HD-on-demand. OCAP is the next leg."

Time Warner is similarly committed, with plans not only to launch a nationwide OCAP footprint, but also to launch its digital navigator in an OCAP version. "For OCAP to be useful, everyone has to get behind it," said Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner, at the same briefing for analysts. "The cable industry is behind this."

Most operators widely acknowledge OCAP's role in getting to a national, write-once-run-everywhere environment for interactive applications. But they're also counting on it as a way to simplify operations related to code updates on the existing base of digital set-tops.

"What we're starting to see is a growing recognition that even if it wasn't Samsung or other TVs, it's useful just to us, because we have so many different types of set-top boxes," Britt explained. Without something like OCAP, "if you want to change the guide, you have to write separately to each piece of hardware. It's a really tedious thing."

Plus, there's the glint of potential revenues. If the mobile industry is any guide, there's an eventual $100 billion per year or more to be made in serving Java-based applications–games, "location-based" services (making sure your kid really is at the library), information.

And, the Java community is large and growing. More than 1.2 billion cell phones, served by 180 wireless carriers, use Java, according to Sun Microsystems. All forthcoming hi-def DVD recorders that are

Blu-ray are Java-based. OCAP is Java-based. If nothing else, there's precedent, mass and momentum.

Getting to OCAP, like getting to anything else worth doing, probably won't be "cake." Nonetheless, it shows every sign of becoming real, starting next month, and over the next three years.

Who's prepping for OCAP?
MSO System(s)
Advance-Newhouse Indianapolis, Ind.
Cablevision Systems Unspecified New York properties
Charter Communications Undisclosed locations
Comcast Boston; Denver; Union, N.J.; Philadelphia
Cox Communications Undisclosed locations
Time Warner Cable Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wis.; Lincoln, Neb.; New York City; Waco, Texas

 

Tips on picking an OCAP test market

  1. If you're in the middle of launching other products, like voice, consider an alternate system.
  2. Remember customer care and call centers. A local presence is helpful.
  3. Pick a system with a solid engineering team.
  4. Adhere to program and process management mechanisms–there are a lot of steps and tangentials involved.
  5. A market that uses both Motorola and SA-type gear yields more comprehensive results.
  6. Some OCAP devices will come from electronics stores, so markets with strong retail relationships are useful.
  7. Make sure you have a "pull-back" mechanism, in case anything goes wrong.
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